Previous interest in light hydrocarbons from geothermal systems has focused principally on the origin of the methane1 and the estimation of subsurface temperatures from the carbon isotopic content of coexisting methane and carbon dioxide1-3. Higher molecular weight hydrocarbons were first reported in gases from Yellowstone National Park4, and have since been found to occur commonly in geothermal emanations in the western United States5. Isotopic measurements of individual geothermal hydrocarbons are now reported which help to explain the origin of these hydrocarbons. The thermal decomposition of sedimentary or groundwater organic matter is a principal source of hydrocarbons in four geothermal areas in western North America. ?? 1981 Nature Publishing Group.